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Ellen Miller – edu|FOCUS
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Author: Ellen Miller

kids in kindergarten

What is Kindergarten Ready, Really?

Once upon a time, children walked into kindergarten as blank slates for their teachers to write upon. They might or might not know their ABC’s, how to hold a pencil and how to read. Now, though, it seems that more and more is being asked of students before they are ever even taught in school. Children are entering school already behind. So what is "kindergarten ready", really? What does it mean? Students who are kindergarten ready are more than three times as likely to be reading on grade level in third grade, thus making kindergarten readiness a huge indicator of outcomes for students. In Texas, a child is eligible to start kindergarten if they have turned five years old prior to September 1 of the school year they would be enrolling in. Other states have a later cutoff, but generally speaking, most students begin kindergarten at around five years old. It’s assumed that students will enter school with some specific skills; however, there is no specific list of kindergarten-ready standards. According to research compiled into a policy brief from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEE), teachers cite factors such as overall child health, ability to communicate thoughts and needs as well as curiosity as important factors indicating kindergarten readiness. Recently, teachers are emphasizing the importance of nonacademic readiness skills over traditional measures of readiness like knowing names of colors, recognizing the alphabet and counting. However, NIEE acknowledges that studies indicate a higher focus on academic readiness in studies focusing on perceptions of low-income children. Parent perception of skills needed to be kindergarten ready also varies based on socioeconomic status but tends to focus on academics. From 2001-2004, the School Readiness Indicators Initiative joined 17 states to try to develop a workable list of readiness factors to include in policy proposals. Maryland has created the R4K— Ready for Kindergarten, a comprehensive early childhood assessment system that builds upon the state assessment system used until 2013. In Texas, Little Texans, Big Futures drew on expertise across the state to set early learning goals. The American Federation of Teachers offers a kindergarten ready checklist online that draws on factors that some states utilize to assess incoming students. Still, without a tailored list of what skills a school is expecting, a parent is challenged with how to best prepare their child for school. Additionally, according to NIEE’s policy brief, "children from low-income or less-educated families are less likely to have the supports necessary for healthy growth and development, resulting in lower abilities at school entry.” The biggest challenge, though, is that no one system exists that defines what kindergarten readiness is. Each state may or may not define readiness; sometimes readiness is defined differently at different schools in the same city. A national standard of readiness would assist both preschools and parents in preparing students to meet the challenges they will face in today’s classrooms. Is there a written kindergarten ready standard where you live? Drop us a note in the comments, and tune back in as...

2016-2017: Education Advocacy Priorities in Texas

Last week we took a look at the education-related issues that the Texas legislature is likely to touch upon in the upcoming session, and noted that the vast majority of legislation eventually passed in session has been discussed and/ or debated in the interim. That makes advocacy extremely important, both in bringing issues to light and shaping the discussion around the issues at hand. Recently in Texas, local nonprofits have begun to partner together to advocate more effectively. Some of the major players in the DFW area are the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, which provides funding to numerous organizations across the city, Early Matters Dallas, a coalition focused on early childhood education that partners with its sister organization in Houston, the Dallas Regional Chamber, which represents local businesses in advocating for, in particular, talent attraction, and many other local nonprofits which have their own advocacy priorities. All nonprofits and education-focused organizations can benefit, or suffer, from legislation passed by the state, and many either advocate individually or partner with other organizations in order to share their opinions with legislators. Notable advocacy priorities for the upcoming legislative session in Texas include: *Pre-k funding and quality      Early Matters Dallas and Early Matters Houston partner together to advocate in Austin; together, they represent 1/4 of the students in Texas. Maintaining the current level of pre-K funding, and ideally increasing it, is a huge priority for many education advocates across the state. In the last session, pre-K funding was a one-time fund, rather than built into the budget, so advocates expect to have to fight to maintain that level of funding this session. Quality of pre-K is also a priority-- 80 percent of eligible four year olds attend pre-K, but only 55 percent are kindergarten ready. *Increasing college readiness      College readiness is often measured by the ACT/ SAT scores needed to get into college. Education advocates are concerned that too many students are getting to college without the skills they need to be successful in their classes and eventually graduate. Increasing college readiness (by improving high school education, providing SAT prep and wraparound services at the college level) is a huge topic of discussion at the moment. *Child health and wellness      Increasing funding for children’s and family services is another area that advocates are focused on. The Texas Home Visiting Program, for example, provides important coaching services to families in their own homes, and could expand to serve more families with increased funding. By joining together, many of these organizations are able to make their voices heard by those who have the power to influence these important issues, often through the state budget approval process. In the next legislative session, each organization will be watching to see how their efforts to improve education in Texas will be impacted. The biggest issue on the table is pre-K, but many other issues beyond those mentioned here will impact local nonprofits— and more importantly, local students....

Summer slide —why it matters, and how we can fight it

For most, summer brings back fond memories of school breaks— precious time spent at summer camps, having sleepovers with friends, and generally avoiding all things related to school until the inevitable trip to the store to buy school supplies in August. Many students will return to their desks this fall and never miss a beat, picking up new skills after quickly reviewing old ones and moving forward. However, not every student will have it so easy. Some children, when they return to school in the fall, will have lost some of the skills they learned in the last year. This is referred to as summer slide, when a student slides backwards academically over the summer. Summer slide creates a challenge for teachers, who assume that their students enter their grade level with a certain set of skills. If students have lost skills over the summer, this creates challenges for the teacher: how can they keep a child moving forward, if they aren't prepared for the grade they are entering? According to the National Summer Learning Association, “summer learning loss… is one of the most significant causes of the achievement gap between lower and higher income youth and one of the strongest contributors to the high school dropout rate.” Summer slide is hugely significant—teachers can be superstars, intervention programs can bring up student reading level during the year, but it’s assumed that some of that gain will be lost over the summer. According to the NSLA, “Every summer, low income youth lose two to three months in reading while their higher-income peers make slight gains. Most youth lose about two months of math skills in the summer.” This means that a good teacher has to backtrack every August— covering grounds that students should already be familiar with. Or worse, the teacher must forge ahead, hoping that the student can catch back up now that they are back in class. One of the easiest ways to prevent summer learning loss is by encouraging summer reading. While middle and high school students might have one book to read over the summer as a class assignment, all students can benefit from a love of reading. In Dallas, the mayor supports the Mayor’s Summer Reading Club, a multifaceted educational initiative that encourages reading. In addition to offering prizes for reading a certain number of books, the program offers educational programming at local library branches. For example, last year the Bachman Lake branch hosted a STEM focused hour where students were able to construct marble runs and race each other. In Dallas, the program also helps to combat hunger; free lunch is available daily at the library for children and parents who accompany them. Dallas also has created a public-private initiative called “Dallas City of Learning,” an online platform that allows students to take advantage of both in person and online learning opportunities and earn online badges to document their success. Since its launch, 34,000 student accounts have been created and over 1700 learning opportunities have been listed. The initiative is a great example...

The Presumptive Presidential Candidates: What’s at Stake in Education

We’re approximately five months out from the general election for the presidency, and after a long and protracted battle for the nomination, we have presumptive candidates for both the Democratic and Republican parties. Both presidential candidates have strong opinions on issues that will affect our nation for the next four years of their potential presidency and beyond. It’s important to note that thus far, education hasn’t been a big topic of discussion in the presidential primaries, with debates focusing on issues related to the economy and immigration. Trump’s campaign website minimally addresses education in the “issues” section (and not the more visible “positions" section). Clinton’s website has two sections in the issues page dedicated to education (one for K-12 and one for early childhood education). Notably, in this election, because education hasn’t yet been a big topic of conversation, it’s up to the voter to pursue information on their own to try to get a feel for the reforms their preferred candidate might make. From their campaign websites, it’s easier to decipher Clinton’s education policy platform; Trump has been more reluctant to define his opinions on education aside from his strong support of moving away from federal oversight to more local control. The table below showcases some of the “hot button” issues in education of the moment, and the current standings (as of June 2016) of the two presumptive presidential candidates. Issue Clinton Trump Common Core In Favor Opposed ECE Supports universal pre-K Unknown Federal Oversight In Favor Opposed Free Community College In Favor Opposed School Choice In Favor (in public system) In Favor In February, Trump emphasized, “We need to fix our broken education system!” and he has previously advocated for school choice, saying “Competition is why I'm very much in favor of school choice. Let schools compete for kids. I guarantee that if you forced schools to get better or close because parents didn't want to enroll their kids there, they would get better. Those schools that weren't good enough to attract students would close, and that's a good thing.”* School choice is the most specific issue that Trump has recently addressed (aside from common core); it’s a fitting focus for him, given his background in business. Clinton has spoken on numerous education related issues recently. To compare their views on common core, Clinton recently said, "I know Common Core started out as a, actually non-partisan, not bi-partisan, a non-partisan effort that was endorsed very much across the political spectrum…What went wrong? I think the roll-out was disastrous…Remember a lot of states had developed their own standards and they'd been teaching to those standards. And they had a full industry that was training teachers to understand what was going to be tested. And then along comes Common Core and you're expected to turn on a dime.”* Trump strongly opposes common core and federal oversight in general. The biggest difference between the two candidates will likely come down to the struggle between local and federal control when it comes to supervising education reform and ensuring that every...

What do young professionals think about public education?

Dallas public schools don’t have a good reputation. Significantly, it’s not just parents who are concerned with the state of public education in our city. Polling a gathering of the Dallas Regional Chamber’s Young Professionals group, 65 percent said that they would not send their child to a public school in Dallas. When you think about the future of public education and the disparity that sees many students of color receiving a subpar education, this is significant. When asked “If given the opportunity, all things being equally comparable, would you send your child to a public or private school?" 83 percent said they would send their child to a public school. This speaks volumes to how the public schools in Dallas (both traditional and charter) are viewed among young professionals in Dallas (albeit a very limited and unrepresentative sample). But it brings up another challenge: if this is how the one percent feel about education in Dallas, how must the parents of the students attending these schools feel? And what are the consequences, should these young professionals have children in the next ten years and nothing in the DFW area changes? School quality is more than just a PR problem for Dallas. It’s something that needs to be addressed, aggressively and immediately. Public schools are the lifeblood of our city— they create the citizens of tomorrow. Student success in school and student opportunities beyond K-12 education will determine the future of our city. If our students are well equipped, they have a greater chance to go on to good jobs and invest back in their communities. If they are not prepared, if the opportunities for them post-high school are lacking, in large part because of the lack of preparation they received as students in our city, we will merely be continuing the cycle that currently exists— a cycle that doesn’t do enough to support low income students and help them pursue opportunities beyond the neighborhoods they grew up in. Can we fault parents for pulling their children out of public schools that are failing and placing them in private schools? No, but not every parent has those same options. We must focus on improving the public options for every student— regardless of their background and income level. We need to invest in public pre-K so that students have support from their earliest years; support rigorous teacher preparation for teachers who will be prepared to support students in these high needs schools and support those teachers so that they remain in the classroom. We must work within the communities to involve parents and families in the process. And we must take on this responsibility ourselves, rather than waiting for someone else to champion the cause. If we do this, over 83 percent of tomorrow’s students will attend public schools, leading to greater diversity and community involvement in the public school community— a win in and of itself....

charters vs. traditional

Charters vs. Traditional Schools in Dallas

There is a big debate going on in Dallas right now regarding the charter school movement. If you're not employed in the profession (or in the area), it would probably pass you by, but it holds the potential to drastically affect the Dallas educational landscape for many years to come. It's about charters-- and land. Charters in Dallas are part of the public school system, but run separately. In Dallas there are a couple of different CMOs (charter management organizations), including KIPP, Uplift Education and Harmony Public Schools. Recently Uplift applied for a zoning permit to open a new campus near I-35 and Camp Wisdom Road. They are growing in the region, there is increasing demand and long wait lists to be admitted and they need more space. Parents are drawn to Uplift because of their results and their college focus. Every Uplift student must be accepted to college in order to successfully graduate. In Dallas, where the public schools run the gamut from extremely high achieving to extremely low achieving, school choice really empowers parents. However, for each student that Dallas ISD loses to expanding charter networks, they also lose state funding earmarked for education. This has led to conflict over proposed space, the likes of which we haven't really seen in the region. Uplift's zoning permit was approved, but by a very narrow margin. It will likely continue to be a point of contention as they continue to expand in the area. Charters aren't miracle schools, and often face the same issues as traditional public schools. Still, there's a lot to be said in support of school choice. Letting parents have some influence as to where their child attends rather than have their school dictated by school boundary lines and a home address. Charters often have more flexibility than public schools, but like most systems the quality of schools can vary widely, depending on the principal, teachers and resources of the school itself. In Dallas, education intervention programs like Reading Partners serve both traditional and charter public schools. Each offers different advantages. Charters can offer more intense academics and offer targeted learning, but they often can't compete with the AP offerings, sports and arts offerings of traditional public schools. This can vary widely by campus as well. Comparing the two systems isn't as simple as saying 'charters are better' or 'traditional public schools are better'. What is clear, though, is that parents are interested in charters -- in the unique learning experiences that they can offer and for Uplift, the college focus that is incorporated into all of their classes. Most of all, perhaps, charters offer something new and different, and can be seen as a way out; perhaps parents feel that their students have a better shot at success than they would if they attended the neighborhood school with a high dropout rate and potentially with higher rates of violence. As education advocates, it's our job to look beyond the politics and determine what is best for students and families. In Dallas,...

The Dallas wealth divide and education

As with many other major cities, Dallas is divided into extremes of wealth, oftentimes geographically. Dallas is a sprawling metroplex; for those unfamiliar with the area, it can often take upwards of an hour just to get between Dallas and Fort Worth, making the “DFW metroplex” moniker more than a little ironic. Still, Dallas is a city, and deals with the same urban complexities that many other major urban areas deal with. It might seem ironic to discuss homelessness, unemployment and struggling schools in the same area that is currently experiencing a huge population increase and housing boom, but as Dallas expands the division between rich and poor continues to grow, with more people moving in than moving up. Education in Dallas is itself often complicated by geographical challenges. Access to pre-K can be limited due to limited seats in a particular school building or area while other areas have an excess of pre-K seats. Pre-K is hardly the only geographically impacted educational issue. As with many districts around the country, school boundaries in Dallas are determined by geographic location- often by zip code. The concept, in its most simplistic form, makes sense— why ask parents to drive their children 10 to 20 minutes away when there is a school down the street? Still, this often results in socioeconomic separation and often school quality correlates: poorer neighborhoods often end up with poorer schools.    In his book “The Shame of The Nation,” Jonathan Kozol refers to this as segregation, pointing out that this issue disproportionately affects African American and Hispanic children. Many of Kozol’s examples are taken from his own experience in the Boston school system as well as his travels around the country. Texas is rarely cited, so I can’t speak to the examples that he uses, but nowhere is economic segregation more apparent than in two school districts in Dallas: Dallas ISD and Highland Park ISD. Even within Dallas ISD itself there are struggling schools and Blue Ribbon schools (schools awarded for achievement). Highland Park ISD is another story entirely, a wealthy district that sees exceptional schools graduate large classes of students every year. How can one high achieving school be a mere 5-10 minute drive from an extremely low performing school?    Dallas Morning News writer Rudolph Bush points out that the consequences of the school district attendance zones go further than the classroom. "The economic homogeneity that results creates enormous invisible costs, mainly in infrastructure, as people move further and further away from the city for 'good' schools, by which they often mean schools where poverty isn’t the defining factor of the student body," he says in an opinion piece that followed a longer conversation on the debate over a bond package for HPISD that an anonymous emailer raised concerns would lead to low-income housing in the district.   How can we ensure that all children receive a quality education, regardless of whether they live in the wealthy half of a zip code? Solutions have been suggested: school choice, vouchers, charter schools, even bussing.  Bush suggests a...

Academics v. social skills: The case of disappearing recess

Circa 1995. A kindergartener skips up to school, hangs up their jacket in their cubby. Practices reading or math with their teacher. Checks on the eggs the class is hatching. Plays in the sandbox. Has lunch. Goes to recess. Naptime. For half day students, heads home. This scenario would sound like a fairy tale to most of Dallas’s current kindergarteners and their families. While things like nap time and recess used to be a typical part of the school day, especially for younger students, they have largely gone by the wayside as schools have tried to rearrange the school day to fit in more instruction. However, recent studies (including a survey specific to Dallas ISD incoming kindergarten students) has found that students are not only lacking in academic skills, but many students come to school unprepared socially. Recess is a key time for developing social skills, and can have other impacts such as improving general school culture. In a recently published article entitled “Playing Fair: The Contribution of High-Functioning Recess to Overall School Climate in Low-income Elementary Schools” high-functioning recess is correlated with a positive school environment. The study authors define high-functioning recess as a recess that supports students by offering optional activities and and emphasizing pro-social skills development. The schools in the study were supported with a Playworks coach who assisted teachers during the recess period and students reportedly took the skills they were taught on the playground back into the classroom, improving school culture and morale. Despite the positive associations with recess and the importance of developing social skills, recess is disappearing from many school campuses across the country. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, while recess time began decreasing in the 1980s the trend accelerated with the passage of No Child Left Behind and the increasing emphasis on test scores. Some districts have a policy regarding recess, and others allow principals or teachers to make the call as to whether a class has recess. A 2003 nationwide survey of 1st through 5th grade students found that 21 percent of students did not have recess. 44 percent of students living below the poverty line did not have recess. In Dallas ISD specifically, a post by former superintendent Mike Miles in January explained that recess time is determined at each school individually. 15 minutes in the morning and 15 in the afternoon is recommended, and “the State requires at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise every day.” However, on at least one campus, teachers rarely felt they had the time to send their classes outside; a class might have gym once or twice a week and recess only in the spring once testing ended, making those recommendations seem a bit optimistic. What do you think? Is recess a valuable use of student time? Is there recess in your school district?...

It’s free childcare. So why aren’t more children in pre-K?

Pre-K enrollment is one of the hot button issues in education today. An early start can make a huge difference in educational achievement for children, whether that is reading at home with parents or organized education through Head Start or public pre-K programs. And best of all, early education programs are often free. So why aren’t more children enrolled in them? There are a variety of issues that may explain low pre-K enrollment in Dallas. The first issue is knowledge— many parents are unaware that public pre-K programs exist, and that they are free. The second issue is buy-in. Many parents simply don’t understand what the value of pre-K is, and why they should make it a priority for their child. This is especially prevalent in Texas, where even kindergarten isn’t required; first grade is the first required grade in the state. This leaves many parents confused as to the advantages of a pre-K education. Studies have shown clear differences between students who went through pre-K and students who did not, and students who had pre-K had a distinct academic advantage as they continued on in school. Valuable as these studies may be, they typically are utilized by the professional education world, rather than by parents. Finally, access can also be an issue— spots for eligible pre-K students aren’t necessarily available in the exact area or school where they are needed. There typically are not as many pre-K spots offered at a school as there are kindergarten and first-grade spots, and some schools have more pre-K spaces than others. This can be challenging for parents who already have children enrolled in other grades- since pre-K does not include busing, the parent would have to drive to two different schools, sometimes in entirely different neighborhoods. If a parent does not understand the value of pre-K this can seem too challenging, and even parents who may be planning for pre-K might not have the resources to manage two separate drop-offs. So how can we, as non-parents and perhaps even non-community members, impact pre-K enrollment? Education, education, education. Parental education is key in terms of informing parents that pre-K is an option, that it is free, and that it is valuable. This spring and summer a dedicated group of people in the South Oak Cliff community went door-to-door, knocking and distributing fliers and answering questions about pre-K. At the back to school fairs in the fall, which tend to focus on older students, pre-K fliers will be distributed. Community nonprofits and businesses have posted pre-K fliers, and pre-K enrollment in South Oak Cliff is increasing. Parental education will remain key for years into the future. It’s a sustaining loop- parents tell other parents about programs they find valuable, so getting in the door now and knocking on as many as possible is worth the time and effort. Longer term, matching spots to students will be important. Whether that means busing pre-K students to different schools until a spot opens up where their siblings attend or hiring more teachers,...

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